One of the first games I reviewed on defective yeti was a party game called Barbarossa, a guessing and deduction game in which players first make tiny sculptures out of clay and then attempt to identify their opponent’s creations. It’s a fun game, and one that invariably generates a lot of laughter. But I’ve been playing it less and less over the years as a number of cracks in the game design have made themselves apparent. The largest flaw, in my mind, is that the game game requires 45 – 90 minutes to play, which is simply too long for what it is. The final third of the game often finds the players becoming increasingly uninterested, and you can usually sense the mood of the group slowing turning from “this is blast!” to “okay, this needs to end.” I’ve often wished that someone would come up with a set of rules that plugged some of Barbarossa’s design holes and allowed you to play it in half the time. So when Dominic Crapuchettes sent me an email saying he had done just that with is new game Cluzzle and offering to send me a copy of for review, I gladly accepted.
Cluzzle incorporates the good elements of Barbarossa, omits the bad, and streamlines everything in between. Each player starts the game with a small lump of colored clay and a card with nine subjects on it; a typical card might have “baseball bat,” “shoelaces,” “pineapple,” “Easter,” and five more random words or phrases. Before play starts, each person chooses one of the items on his card and sculpts a clue for the subject with his clay. The key word here is “clue.” Players need not create literal representation of their subject (and, in cases like “Easter,” couldn’t in any case), but may sculpt anything that they think will aid the other players in guessing their subject.
When everyone has completed their clues and they have been placed in the center of the table, the first of three rounds begins. Each round lasts two minutes (the game comes with a sand timer), and during it players may ask their opponent’s yes-or-no questions about their subjects. “Is it alive?” might be a typical question, or “is your subject two words?” The owner of a clue must answer truthfully and completely. There is no order during a Guessing Rounds: any player may jump in with a question as soon as the previous question has been answered. Also during a round, players will be jotting down their guesses as to the other player’s subjects on a pad of paper. When the sand-timer runs out no more questions may be asked or guesses made.
A round concludes with scoring. For each clue, all players read their guesses off their sheets, and the owner announces if anyone has guessed correctly. When a clue is identified, the correct guessers and the owner of the clue score points, and the clue is retired; if no one gets a clue it is carried on to the next round. After three rounds, the session ends; after three sessions the game is over.
The conceit at the heart of Cluzzle is lifted directly from Barbarossa: players gain the greatest rewards for making “Goldilocks clues,” those that are neither to easy nor too hard. The number of points a player gains when his clue is correctly guessed equals the round it was guessed in — one in the first round, two in the second, three in the third — but clues that remain unsolved at the end of the third round score nothing. This clever twist means that players need not worry if they are not good at sculpting, because creating instantly recognizable clues is not the goal. Instead, the game rewards creativity, both in the clue-smithing, and in question asking.
Overall, Cluzzle is both considerably less than and a vast improvement on Barbrossa. By stripping the system down to its core, players are able to focus on the fun rather than the rules — and essential feature of any party game. It does share one fault with its progenitor — that people can sometimes and unintentionally give ambiguous answers to question, throwing some players off track and irritating them when the solution is revealed — but played amongst friends, serious disagreements are unlikely to break out.
Some people have expressed misgivings about Cluzzle genesis, saying that it’s nothing more than a rip-off of Barbarossa. On the one hand I can understand their grievance, but it doesn’t appear that the much needed Barbarossa: Second Edition is on the horizon, so I can’t bring myself to begrudge Crapuchettes for undertaking the task, even if he is making a few bucks on the side. Besides, the reason game mechanics aren’t copyrightable is so that they can be freely reused, and designers have the liberty to take a older game and refine it into an better product. In my opinion, that’s exactly what Crapuchettes has done.